Court nullifies native law excluding Akwa Ibom women from family inheritance

A high court sitting in Etinan local government area, Akwa Ibom State, has nullified the practice of excluding female children from family inheritance.

Pius Idiong, judge of the state high court, while delivering judgment in a suit marked: HET/3A/2019 said the practice of female disinheritance is unconstitutional.

In the suit, one Michael Patrick Noah and his seven siblings had sued their aunt, Gertrude Ekanem, seeking to stop her from inheriting the landed property of her sister, Immaculata Noah, who died without a husband or a child.

The appellants consist of six men and their two married sisters.

The appellants argued that their aunt cannot inherit her sister’s property located at 24, Iman street, Etinan, because she is a woman and had also been married out of the family.

The case, which emanated from the Etinan district court, went further to the chief magistrate court and the high court.

However, the judge described the practice as “anachronistic, primitive and unconscionable”, adding that it should not exist in 21st-century society.

Idong held that although the courts are encouraged to apply, administer and give effects to the custom and tradition of the people of its area of jurisdiction, the court does not have to apply customs which are unreasonable, discriminatory, and an affront of the law.

He disagreed with Emmanuel Okokon Eboh, the village head of Edem Ekpat, who while testifying as a witness, said when a woman dies in the community without a child or husband, her property reverts to her family and not her sister, who has been married out to another family.

The judge held that the custom of the people of Edem Ekpat and Etinan local government areas, which denies a woman the right to inherit properties of her deceased parents or siblings, debases such a woman and contravenes Section 42 of the 1999 Constitution.

He applauded both the trial district court in Etinan and the chief magistrate court, for refusing to uphold such customs.

The court declared that the native laws discriminating against women, whether married or not, are a nullity and can no longer be enforced in the local government.

The judge dismissed the appeal and awarded N50,000 cost against the eight siblings.

The development comes six years after the supreme court ruled on a similar case.

In 2014, in a case between Onyibor Anekwe & Anor v. Mrs. Maria Nweke, with suit number SC. 129/2013, the supreme court had passed judgment in favour of the respondent (Maria) who was asked to vacate her house by her late husband’s father on the ground that she bore no male child.

The appellants had argued that it was customary law in Awka, Anambra state, for the eldest son to inherit the properties of his late father and in a situation where there is no male child, the property goes to the deceased’s father and eldest brother.

The supreme court held that “a custom of this nature in the 21st-century societal setting will only tend to depict the absence of the realities of human civilization.”

“It is punitive, uncivilised, and only intended to protect the selfish perpetration of male dominance which is aimed at suppressing the right of the womenfolk in the given society,” the judge ruled.

“One would expect that the days of such obvious differential discrimination are over. Any culture that disinherits a daughter from her father’s estate or wife from her husband’s property by reason of God-instituted gender differential should be punitively and decisively dealt with.

“For a widow of a man to be thrown out of her matrimonial home, where she had lived all her life with her late husband and children, by her late husband’s brothers on the ground that she had no male child, is indeed very barbaric.”

In a similar case, Gladys Ada Ukeje had contended her disinheritance from the properties of her father who died in 1961 without leaving a will.

The trial court had ruled in favour of the plaintiff directing Lois Chituru Ukeje, wife of the deceased, and her son, Enyinnaya Lazarus Ukeje, to share the estate of the deceased with Gladys.

Not satisfied with the decision of the trial court, the defendants filed an appeal which was dismissed for lacking merit.

Delivering a judgment in the appeal on April 11, 2014, the supreme court upheld the lower court’s decision that the Igbo customary law which disentitles a female from inheriting the property of the deceased father is void, as it conflicts with the fundamental right to freedom from discrimination set out in section 42(1)(a) and (2) of the 1999 Constitution.

The court further clarified that no matter the circumstances of the birth of a female child (whether or not she is born out of wedlock), such a child is entitled to an inheritance from her late father’s estate.

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